The Little-known Animated Hobbit Film from 1966

Today is my birthday, so here is a fun topic I want to talk about just because it is interesting to me!

Many fans will point to the animated film by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. as the first film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. This is understandable, because it received a wide audience when it first aired, and has remained a classic for many viewers. This version, however, is not the first film adaptation of Tolkien, nor the first adaptation of The Hobbit specifically!

Eleven years prior to the creation of the Rankin/Bass version, a much shorter, and admittedly less accurate, cartoon of the text was created by Gene Deitch. Deitch himself revealed this story in a blog post, but I have summarized it below.

Here is an overview of the story behind this unlikely little video:

Image copyright Rembrandt Films

In 1964, William Snyder obtained the film rights to The Hobbit, and he approached Deitch with the proposal to turn it into a feature-length animated movie. Deitch read the book, and thought it sounded like a great idea! Unfortunately, everyone involved with the production was blissfully unaware of The Lord of the Rings, and so there were many liberties taken with the plot and characters. Once they learned about the larger text, they revised and updated their screenplay.

Unfortunately, part-way through the process, Snyder had asked for too much money from 20th Century-Fox, ruining their chances at an important bankroll for the movie. This meant that the project had to be scrapped because it lacked funding.

Months later, Snyder reached out to Deitch again, demanding a 12-minute film be completed and delivered to New York from Prague within 30 days. You see, Snyder’s contract stipulated that he had to “produce a full-color motion picture version” of the story by June 30th, 1966. The contract never stipulated how long the film had to be. If he was able to do so, then he would retain rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings! The Lord of the Rings had exploded in popularity after Snyder had purchased filming rights, so retaining his contract became very important!

In order to deliver this film, Deitch had to destroy his longer screenplay, the one he spent more than a year editing, and write a short film that told the basic story from beginning to end. This also meant that Deitch had to draw, color, record sound, shoot, and edit the film then deliver it across the globe in under one month!

They managed to complete all of the work and ship the film in time. Snyder retained his rights. The film, though was just a ploy to make money off of his investment. Snyder sold the rights back to the Tolkien Estate shortly after they renewed for a large profit. Unfortunately Deitch didn’t receive anything for his work from this bit of business.

The resulting cartoon was something so slap-dash that it was never intended to be distributed. Furthermore, Deitch did not put his name on the film for 45 years. Part of the reason that Deitch burried his association with the film is because it didn’t live up to the vision he started the project with. It was not a feature-length movie with the best visual and voice-over artists that he had started the project hoping to create.

You can now watch the full video online:

The Best (and Worst) Books for Tolkien Biography

I have seen several news stories along the lines of “books to read before seeing Tolkien” around the internet recently. While I applaud news outlets for encouraging reading tied to movies, several of these posts, though certainly not all, recommend reading Tolkien’s fantasy works instead of reading works about Tolkien. In my experience, biographical material is far more interesting to read before a biopic, so I have compiled a list of recommended (and not recommended) readings that appeal more to that aspect. Enjoy!


J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

Put simply, this book is regarded as the essential Tolkien biography by many scholars and fans.

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by Humphrey Carpenter

This book focuses more specifically on the group that came together to share readings and community in Oxford that included Tolkien and Lewis.

Winner of the 1982 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by Diana Pavlac Glyer

This is another well-respected and informative book looking at the creative group in Oxford!

I believe this is somehow related to her other text The Company They Keep, but as I have not read it I can provide no commentary. (Winner of the 2008 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies.)

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

This excellent book looks at Tolkien’s war experience during World War I and how his friendships and experience could have shaped his life and literature.

Winner of the 2004 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez

This is an even closer portrait of the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, as the title implies.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter

This is an invaluable resource for readers who want a little insight into Tolkien’s exchanges with friends, family, publishers, and fans.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan

Even though this is a collection of essays rather than a book-length investigation, it is absolutely worth mentioning because it is perhaps the best resource available discussing the way that Tolkien worked with and supported women in his life.

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History by Dimitra Fimi

While not a biography, per se, this volume contains an insightful cultural history of Tolkien which is helpful when trying to understand how Tolkien’s views and opinions compared to the culture in which he lived.

Winner of the 2010 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Boxed Set

I added this after Jason Fisher and others pointed out that the Chronology is a fantastic insight into Tolkien’s biography.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine

Released in conjunction with the recent (2018) Tolkien exhibition in Oxford, this serves as both the catalogue for that exhibition and a remarkable text full of insight into the life of Tolkien.

Have Not Read

For each of these, I welcome comments from other readers!

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams

Winner of the 2017 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien by Raymond Edwards

  A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

Not Recommended

The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth by Daniel Grotta

Grotta has been exposed for, shall we say, taking liberties?

J.R.R. Tolkien (Just the Facts Biographies or Learner Biographies) by David R. Collins

Not well circulated, this book is intended as an introduction to the author for children. Unfortunately it suffers from two faults: it contextualizes the author using the movies, and at times it seems to take facts from Grotta.

Honorable Mentions

I have not included these in the list because I did not think them either bibliographic enough, or far-ranging enough in their bibliographic content. However, I wanted to mention some other works of great scholarship that touch on bibliography:

The several volumes produced by Hammond and Scull about Tolkien’s artistic output!

Shippey’s first and second books on Tolkien have less biography, but demonstrate overlap between biography and his creative output (credit to commenters for convincing me to add this).

Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver et al.

Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917-1918: An Illustrated Tour by Phil Mathison

Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity by Carl Phelpstead

There are several works by authors like Richard Purtill, Joseph Pearce, or Bradley Birzer which focus specifically on the religious aspects of Tolkien’s life and elevate it above all others. I have not included such works in this list, but a couple are worth hunting down if these are of interest to you.

What other books would you recommend for biographical information? Do you agree or disagree with anything on this list? Let me know!